Clive Barker’s Tortured Souls was a 2001 collaboration between the mentioned author and Todd McFarlane to put out a line of horror-themed toys via McFarlane Toys. The line-up consisted of six figures—Agonistes, the Scythe-Meister, Lucidique, Talisac, Mongroid, and Venal Anatomica—each one coming with a chapter of a novelette that Barker had written as the back-story for the toys. The line was successful enough that the creators put out Tortured Souls 2 the following year.
Recently, Subterranean Press put out a collected hardcover edition of the Tortured Souls novelette. As far as I know this is the first time the tale has been compiled into a single volume, making it more easily available to readers who were interested in the story but not the toys.
So how does it fare on its own apart from the toys?
Not too badly, but not all that memorably either. The style it’s written in is designed to resemble a fable of sorts, a stylistic choice that makes sense given the context and purpose. And as a fable, it’s quite enjoyable—action-packed, atmospheric, uncomplicated and dripping with the visceral gore that Clive Barker is known for.
Primordium, we are told, is an ancient city older than Rome and more corrupt than even when the City of the Seven Hills was ruled by the depraved Nero. Zarles Krieger is a low-ranking but ruthlessly effective assassin who works for one of the city’s gangster lords who, in turn, secretly serves as the muscle for the emperor of Primordium. But when sent to assassinate a senator who dared speak out against the emperor he meets the senator’s charismatic daughter who convinces him to leave his life of crime and become an avenger of the city’s dispossessed which he himself was once part of. Only, as a single man he cannot bring down an entire empire and that’s where Agonistes, a dark and mysterious entity who grants people unstoppable power at unimaginable cost, comes in.
Tortured Souls shouldn’t be compared with Barker’s more ambitious works but rather accepted for what it is and judged on those grounds. It’s a brisk, fun read and requires no familiarity with the toy line. And its simplicity allows you to put weighty analysis aside and just enjoy it for the revenge tale that it is.
Having said that, the first half of the story is the most enjoyable. Once we pass the halfway mark in the novelette, one becomes increasingly conscious of the fact that this was written primarily as a way to supplement and help market a toy line. The events start to feel increasingly pointless and anti-climactic, almost as if they were an afterthought to what occurred in the first half. And the way things are wrapped up feel rushed and somewhat unsatisfying, though not nearly as unsatisfying as it would have be if this were a full length novel. The fact that it’s a dark and violent fairy tale that we can read in a single sitting makes the denouement acceptable.
Tortured Souls’ simplicity and atmosphere make it an ideal candidate for a movie adaptation and apparently at one point Universal had optioned it only to later drop it. Too bad. That could have been really cool, especially if the film had taken the core elements of what makes the book entertaining and amplified them.
Now, if I hadn’t known Tortured Souls was a supplement to a toy line I might have been a bit tougher in my appraisal. Knowing the context made me feel a bit more relaxed about what to expect. But at the same time the book’s affiliation with the toys somewhat detracts from it as well. I’m no toy expert (that would be our friendly neighborhood jman) but speaking strictly from a visual viewpoint it’s not hard to see that the McFarlane figures are very closely modeled after the Cenobite characters from Barker’s Hellraiser franchise (or at least the movie portion of the franchise). I mean, let’s be honest here, they pretty much are Cenobites.
Perhaps there are some hidden legal issues here that I’m completely unaware of, but why couldn’t have Barker and McFarlane simply made a Hellraiser line of toys as long as the visual aesthetic was going to be virtually identical? Again, maybe there were ownership issues involved and thus Barker and McFarlane Toys designed new Cenobites, created a different world for them to inhabit and called this brand Tortured Souls.
The Barker fanboy in me wants to say, “Whatever, it’s cool stuff.” And it is. But the critic in me wonders if there wasn’t a tad bit of creator laziness in borrowing so heavily from the visual imagery of the Hellraiser mythos to put out a toy line that, with the Barker and McFarlane names attached, was bound to be successful and lucrative.
Anyway, the only reason I mention all this is that such thoughts did slightly infringe upon my reading, making me ask some questions that can’t be answered barring an interview with Barker or McFarlane. Nevertheless, what really matters here is the book itself and how well it reads as an independent work. And my answer to that has been that it reads fairly well and entertainingly, so long as you don’t expect anything more of it than what it was intended to be.